Archive for orchestras

Amplification

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Who likes Steve Martland?

A composer like Steve Martland is not easy to listen to, as often his concerts are amplified way too loud, probably to help prevent the audience falling asleep.

Not all instruments are acoustically brilliant, to begin with, and balancing acoustic with electric or electronic instruments almost inevitably involves amplifying the former. Also, amplification has many functions apart from making things louder: it can place sounds at different points in space, it can colour them in various ways including transforming them into altogether new sounds, and it can be used in order to create sound-combinations and balances (say, bass flute and trumpet) which couldn’t occur naturally. By disengaging the loudness of a sound from the physical effort required to make it, amplification opens up enormous possibilities for the musical imagination which are far from being exhausted.

However, in my experience, it usually ends up sounding too loud, and the amplification is often done to save money on players. Steve Martland himself has said that orchestras don’t really need so many string players, as they could use amplification instead.

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Le Sacre du Printemps by Igor Stravinsky

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Marvellous, organised, musical chaos, as much now as it ever was. And as much a test piece for any orchestra as it ever was.

Perhaps when I first heard Le Sacre du Printemps it was quite a shock and very exciting. I still think it one the pivotal works in musical history, but I also see it as the final glorious climax of 70 years (from Glinka, through Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov) of the Russian nationalist school. It sounds intensely Russian and stretches the developments of that school about as far (and just beyond) harmonically, rhymically, etc., as it could conceivably go. No wonder Stravinsky started to change direction somewhat after its completion, he knew what he had achieved and that he could go no further down that road.

I first heard Le Sacre du Printemps in Solti’s 1974 Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording and will never forget that first hearing. It was rarely off the turntable for many weeks afterwards. It is surely the most elemental work in the repertoire and even the greatest of orchestras are challenged as witness the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms a couple of years ago.

Ravel’s Bolero: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

This is a piece of core repertoire which divides listeners sharply.

Personally, I don’t find in the least bit tedious: study with a score shows that there’s far more to the piece than most people imagine: a daring concept flawlessly executed and orchestrated (even if the stuff of nightmares for trombonists; the solo for them is one of the most difficult in the whole orchestral repertoire). Whilst I wouldn’t want to hear it every day, I’m always delighted when it turns up, especially if the conductor actually complies with the composer’s request and starts off at a steady pace and stays there, rather than pushing ever forward, which destroys the effect and emasculates the work’s power (if emasculate is the right word for such a sultrily feminine piece).

Bolero does not work well on record, but if you see it performed, it is a quite different experience. Only when you have it in front of you do you see the extraordinary concentration required by the snare drummer to keep the ostinato going against the continually shifting background of the tune.

That said, I do think that Bolero can be the most tedious piece ever. When it’s not played right that is. All too often it’s played, rather nicely, as a stock orchestral showpiece. Complete with “Oh no, not this again” 1812-style boredom from the orchestra.

Occasionally, just occasionally, it gets played dead straight, in strict tempo (vital to any sense of menace being sustained) and builds inexorably from inaudible to a mechanistic yet brutal sonic assault – though this can only ever be experienced in the concert hall. Then it’s anything but tedious.

Conductors’ Pay

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

I don’t know about today but years ago most conductors received surprisingly little for some concerts in this country but more as a visiting artist abroad.

A friend of mine, a professional conductor, tells me that he never gets to conduct “pro” bands in the UK, only amateurs. But when he conducts a professional orchestra in Germany, Holland, Spain or Scandinavia he is usually paid an inclusive fee of about £1,200 for a single concert, with any supplementary concerts paid at 50% extra. Of course, he has to pay his travel expenses, hotel and meals out of this.

Here in the UK, where he does the rounds of several amateur bands, the going rate for a 2½ hour rehearsal is £65 and a concert is £400. These fees are inclusive of travel, subsistence, etc.

It depends hugely on exactly what they are doing, of course. Many conductors who work for opera houses will be on a yearly contract, and will get a monthly salary, usually without regard to how many performances they conduct, or how many productions they are required to rehearse and supervise up to the opening night. But this is relatively rare.

More typically conductors are freelancers who are paid per project. There is usually one fee for the rehearsal period, and a separate concert fee for the public appearances.

Recordings are different once again – the conductor will usually be paid a royalty in addition to the sessions involved in putting it in the can.

When I was an employee the argument used to avoid giving us a pay rise was always “there are so many people wanting to do your job that we don’t need to offer any more than the minimum.”

I think if this principle were observed universally a good deal of money would be saved. I’d certainly apply it to opera singers, premier league footballers, racing drivers, and heads of public utilities such as water companies.

Hans Zimmer: Classical Composer?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Someone asked me if the soundtrack to the film Gladiator could be regarded as classical music. Seriously. The conversation turned to the similarities between the battle scene and Mars from Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite. But he also asked if the zither/vocals and the charismatic droning of a woman’s voice in the closing titles was also derived from older music.

I have a CD entitled “Music of the Post-Byzantine High Society” by Christodoulos Halaris, and there appear to be some superficial similarities to the two works.

The music for Gladiator also features the extraordinary Jivan Gasparyan who is probably the greatest duduk player in the world, and there is an obvious nod to Armenian music.

To get back to the question: “classical music” is unfortunately a term applied so widely and loosely that it’s impossible to arrive at a consensus. For instance, some people would say it is music written in the idiom that predominated in Europe between about 1750 and 1828 (i.e. from the death of J.S. Bach to the death of Beethoven), while others seem to think that anything played by an orchestra including violins is “classical” , even if it’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. So, subjective taste influences the use of the term.

Music composed to accompany films and TV programmes is often written for orchestras similar to those used in 19th and 20th century symphonies, and the musical idiom used often incorporates features of the “classical” music that might have been used in the period in which the film’s story is set, e.g. the Napoleonic Wars or Edwardian England, such as Patrick Gowers’ music for the Granada TV “Sherlock Holmes” which emulates part of a romantic violin concerto.

But “part of” is an important consideration, I think. Film music rarely needs to be a convincing or extended structure, because it is usually heard for a minute or so and then faded out for dialogue. This, and the fact that it often deliberately imitates the music of a previous century, may explain why many people consider it in a separate category from what they call “classical music”.

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Schumann’s Scoring

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on September 19, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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Maybe if Robert Schumann’s symphonies were to be played on “period” instruments, Mahler might not have found it necessary to rescore them. Or maybe Schumann’s scoring is so bad they need work done on them anyway.

Mahler’s rescoring of the Schumann symphonies in order to make them more transparent had become necessary because of the development of the size of the orchestras as well as that of some of the instruments.

As becomes now clear with the use of period instruments and orchestral sizes, Schumann did not orchestrate his works so badly at all. Some of the now rather greasy sounding doublings, especially in the winds, do sound transparent on “period” instruments.

The opening of the Symphony No. 1 played on valve horns at the original pitch, i.e. a third lower than normally heard (as natural ones cannot cope with this, the original scoring), makes a real difference. The horns which define so much of the festive character of the Symphony No. 3 sound really exciting, and the clarinets in both the original as the revised versions of Symphony No. 4 do colour the piece – as a more protruding solo violin does as well.

So, Schumann’s orchestration sounds “fatty” more because of being played on instruments for which it basically wasn’t meant, than because of Schumann’s supposed lack of experience/knowledge of orchestration.

But it depends which of Schumann’s orchestral works: there is a marked difference in the orchestration of those from after 1850 (including the Third Symphony and the 1851 version of the Fourth), with much more doubling of string parts in the wind, and cellos and basses generally playing together most of the time, than in those works from the 1840s. It was at this point that Schumann moved to Düsseldorf and took charge of the orchestra there, which was somewhat smaller than the Leipzig Gewandhaus which had earlier been his basic model (the Düsseldorf orchestra seems to have had about 50 players, at least in 1852, though these were occasionally augmented for big festivals; the Leipzig orchestra had 60). Also the string players were of a markedly lower standard, as attested by Wilhelm von Wasielewski; Schumann brought him over from Leipzig to be leader of the Düsseldorf orchestra. My interpretation is that Schumann’s late orchestration is pragmatic, designed to get the best results out of the forces he had available on a regular basis at that time. With that in mind, when using larger and better orchestra, I do believe there may be a case for considering Mahler’s modifications, or those of Felix Weingartner. However, it should also be borne in mind that Schumann advocated, in a letter to Franz Brendel in 1847, a section of a Universal German Society of Musicians for “the protection of classical music against modern adaptations”, and to research “corrupted passages in classical works”, about which he had published an article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

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Lang Lang Murders Chopin, Dresden Staatskapelle Does Nothing

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music with tags , , , , , , , on August 28, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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Lang Lang played the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Royal Albert Hall last night. It sounded to me like he was tugging for Britain and China.

OK, I watched about 25 seconds of it, but he’s quite literally unwatchable. Sound only, still dodgy – plus the engineers aren’t doing the orchestra any favours. I did just sneak another glance at the emoting in the slow movement. Appalling.

I once went to the Proms with a friend who’s a horse vet. He wasn’t allowed to leave his pistol in the car, so in it came (before security checks). Had that happened yesterday there would have been a genuine murder.

Terribly boring stuff. Just a pity one of the world’s great orchestras on tour has to be a backing group for this.

So, I have to say, it wasn’t bad, it was dire – such rubato and exaggeration all round but still what did we expect and the Dresden Staatskapelle were adequate, no more. Naturally the Prommers went wild but they’d do that if the fire alarms went off, wouldn’t they?

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